, , , , ,

This is a continuation of my investigation into the Gatton murders. If you haven’t read part 1, you should go back and do so before jumping into part 2.

The Murder Scene

The Crime Scene (Moran’s Paddock). The sulky is clearly visible in the center.


As McNeill went to find the sergeant a small group of men from the hotel saddled up and went to the murder site. McNeill and Sergeant Arrell caught up to the men just as they were about to enter the sliprails into Moran’s paddock and onto the murder scene. Sergeant Arrell found the bodies and seemed to be flustered as to what to do next. McNeill was sent to the Murphy household to pass on the tragic news. This is where any chance of finding the murderer starts to unravel and a bumbling police investigation seems to take hold.

Arrell, presumably not finding any clues, left the murder scene to go into town to send a telegram to the Commissioner of police. Arrell didn’t mark the telegram urgent as he was incorrectly told that the police did not have the authority to send urgent telegrams. Upon arriving back at the scene Sergeant Arrell must have been somewhat angered and shocked to see the crime scene had almost entirely been overrun by curious onlookers. Arrell repeatedly tried to move them on but he was overwhelmed by the crowd.

Meanwhile, Mary Murphy had arrived at the crime scene. She repeatedly begged Sergeant Arrell to remove the bodies as the sun and ants had started to get to them. Arrell was very reluctant to do so before a doctor could arrive on the scene but eventually relented. At around 2pm that day the bodies were moved to the Brian Boru Hotel and put up in a room before Dr William Henry von Lossberg (Government Medical Officer, Ipswich District) arrived to do a post mortem on the bodies at around 4pm (Royal Commission 1899, p.409).


The Imperial Hotel (formerly the Brian Boru Hotel). The bodies where taken from the crime scene to this hotel. (circa 1906)


Sub Inspector Galbraith was at nearby Rosewood when he heard about the murders and immediately rushed over to Gatton. He arrived late on the 27th of December. Early on the morning of the 28th of December Inspector Urquhart arrived and immediately took over the case. After ruling out the immediate family, the police quickly established three main suspects, William McNeil, Richard Burgess and Thomas Day. McNeil who had discovered the bodies was shadowed heavily by the police (Gibney p.93-6). Police found it curious that McNeil had gone to the hotel before heading into town to find the Sergeant, it was an interesting point that even though McNeil had discovered the bodies there were no visible tracks. These two sticking points are easily explained and one feels that the police must have wasted valuable time in chasing this dead end. As explained earlier, McNeil was not a native of Gatton and thus only went into the hotel to enquire about where to find the police station. As for the lack of tracks, the ground at the murder site was not the kind that left many tracks. Also it must be noted that McNeil, when discovering the bodies did not loiter around, he rushed immediately into town after seeing blood and was not completely sure that it was murder. While I understand that police must look at all possible suspects it becomes quite clear that they prolonged their investigation into McNeil. It must be noted that William McNeil only a few years later was involved in an incident in Toowoomba in which he chased down a wayward horse and carriage and proceeded to save the lives of the children stuck inside.

On researching this case it became clear to me very early on that McNeil had absolutely nothing to do with the murders and if anything conducted himself in a most admirable way throughout this tragedy. However, the two other suspects I feel deserve a little more investigation.


Richard Burgess was the prime suspect for the Gatton murders throughout the police investigation. He was a violent criminal who was only released a month or so before the murders. When the police enquired about Burgess, they found out he was in the Bunya Mountains roughly 100 kilometers north of Gatton. This immediately attracted the attention of the police as it seemed that he had passed through the surrounds of Gatton around the time of the murder. The police seemed hell bent on getting Burgess and on the 6th of January he was arrested by a constable near the Bunya Mountains on suspicion of murder (Queensland Times 1899). With no evidence to present, Burgess was released eight days later only to be immediately arrested again on the charge of stealing a saddle (The Queenslander 1899).

Burgess’ trial began on the 24th of January. He explained his movements from the 30th November 1888, when he was released from prison all the way to his arrest in the Bunya Mountains on the 6th of January 1899. Burgess’ movements were extensive however he claimed he was not near Gatton on Boxing Day night. He claimed he was in Clifton heading towards Toowoomba, Clifton being approximately 70km south of Gatton. His movements around this time were corroborated by a Presbyterian Minister, a Danish woman who gave him food and a farmer. All these people claimed that they ran into Burgess on the day/night of the murders.

But this did not seem enough for the police, who spent much of February on the road with Richard Burgess tracing his supposed movements from his release all the way up to his re-arrest for the suspicion of the murders.  After these expeditions it was finally conceded by the police that there was no evidence whatsoever to connect Richard Burgess with the Gatton murders. The police reached this conclusion two full months after the murders. Valuable time to catch the real culprit was lost.


The third suspect in the murders was given the least amount of attention from the police. This was very surprising to me as by all accounts Thomas Day seems to be a mysterious person of questionable character. Day arrived in Gatton on the 15th of December 1898. He almost immediately started work with Mr Clarke, the butcher. He boarded in a hut on Clarke’s property, which must be noted was right next to Moran’s paddock, the scene of the murders. There seems to be something sinister about Day, as Clarke explains his wife’s warning during the Royal Commission into the proceedings ‘She had a very bad opinion of him and told me to be careful, that it was quite likely he might knock me on the head. He is a very powerful man and a big man too’ (Clarke, Royal Commission, 1899). Of course a seedy disposition is never enough to connect a man to a crime. But when it comes to Thomas Day it appears the police did not investigate thoroughly enough. There seems to be a few bits of evidence that were dismissed too early.


Next, we look more closely at the very mysterious Thomas Day, the evidence that may link him to the crime and how the killer evaded justice.